2022 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Maple Leafs vs. Lightning

Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox discuss the Toronto Maple Leafs' mindset entering the playoffs and why the Tampa Bay lightning could be a 'formidable foe' in their quest for the Stanley Cup.

Fifty-four wins. One hundred and fifteen points. Sixty goals and a new franchise record for Auston Matthews. By many measurements, 2021-22 was a historically good season for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And to celebrate these many achievements, they get… a date with the back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions with everything on the line.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have a rare opportunity for some historic feats of their own. Should they complete the championship three-peat, they’d be the first NHL franchise since the New York Islanders dynasty of 40 years ago to win the Cup three straight years. (The Islanders, of course, won it four times to usher in the 1980s.)

Remarkably, this is the first time these Atlantic foes will meet in the playoffs. And if there’s one word to describe this series, it’s offence. This should be fun.

HEAD-TO-HEAD RECORD

Maple Leafs: 2-2-0

Lightning: 2-1-1

THE BREAKDOWN

Over the course of 82 games, the Maple Leafs put together the most dominant season in the franchise’s 105-year history, racking up a plus-60 goal differential, putting on a masterclass in power-play performance, and playing the most complete hockey we’ve seen from this core.

And yet, even before the puck dropped to open the season, it’s been clear that the success of this team won’t really begin to be measured until game No. 83. If you love (or hate) the Leafs, you already know the recent record – five straight playoff berths, five straight first-round exits, and a particularly painful series collapse against the Canadiens last spring that still hasn’t lost its sting.

That their path to playoff redemption now goes through the champs feels like an almost cruel joke from the hockey gods, but Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe insists they prefer it this way.

“They have elite players at all positions, great depth, great experience,” Keefe said of the Lightning Friday night. “It’s a great challenge.

“When I look at our group, I think, the harder, the better. That's what we need.”

If their regular-season series this year is any indication, we’re in for goals in this matchup. Many, many goals. Four meetings yielded a combined 28 markers, with Tampa outscoring Toronto 16-12. A pair of April meetings saw them exchange blowouts, while their regular-season series finale saw them exchange blows as things got mighty chippy – surely, a sign of emotions to come.

Compare their cores, and you’ll see a lot of similarities: Sharp shooters up front with a skill-heavy top six depth that does not go unnnoticed, a blue line led by a blue-chip skater with the ability to quarterback the power-play, and a goalie that can get hot.

Both teams were big buyers at the trade deadline, their respective approaches making clear their playoff priorities – the Maple Leafs prioritized the blue line with the acquisition of Mark Giordano, who brings more veteran know-how to this group, while the Lightning found a pair of forwards in Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel to fill the void left by last year’s clutch checking line of Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow, and Blake Coleman.

ADVANCED STATS

(5-on-5 totals via Natural Stat Trick)

REGULAR SEASON TEAM STATS

Maple Leafs X-Factor: Depth scoring

It goes without saying that for the Leafs to get past the champs, they need top scorers Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to lead the way. The duo combined for just one goal between them last spring against the Canadiens, and a similar effort this year would surely result in a short series.

But superstar scorers won’t be what separates the Leafs and Lightning, considering Tampa’s own stable of elite goal-scorers. The difference will need to come down to depth – and in that regard, Toronto has really stepped things up.

Breakout seasons for players like Pierre Engvall, Ilya Mikheyev, and David Kampf have allowed Keefe to fill out a solid bottom-six that’s tough to play against – a season-long mission for Toronto brass – while the emergence of Michael Bunting on the top line has been a game-changer when it comes to the line combos at Keefe’s disposal.

Lightning X-Factor: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Goaltending has been a massive talking point in Toronto, with concerns about whether Jack Campbell can be the man to backstop this team through a long post-season run – and if he’ll be able to stay healthy enough to try. Over in Tampa, however, no one questions the man in the blue paint.   

There is no better goaltender when it comes to the playoffs than Vasilevskiy. Between 2020’s Cup Final series and Tampa’s run to repeat as champs last year, the netminder registered five straight shutouts in series-clinching games. Over the past two springs combined, he registered an otherworldly 1.90 goals against average. If he picks up that pace again, Toronto could really be in trouble.

BROADCAST DETAILS

Monday, May 2: at Toronto, 7:30 p.m. ET (Sportsnet/CBC)
Wednesday, May 4: at Toronto, 7:30 p.m ET (Sportsnet/CBC)
Friday, May 6: at Tampa Bay, 7:30 p.m. ET (Sportsnet/CBC)
Sunday, May 8: at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m. ET (Sportsnet/CBC)
*Tuesday, May 10: at Toronto
*Thursday, May 12: at Tampa Bay
*Saturday, May 14: at Toronto

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